THE WEE SOCIETY MAN
In June 2021 Charlie K posted a great memory of his time in and around Govan as a collector for United Friendly Insurance. In April 2022 Charlie posted some more memories of his time as “the Wee Society Man”. The group found Charlie's memories so entertaining that we thought they deserved their very own section on the website. You can read Part One and Part Two of Charlie's memories below:
Although not from Govan, I do have a connection.
My grandparents were born in the Govan area, my father was born in 44 Merryland Street in 1926 – not sure what the property was then so any photos or info from that time would be greatly appreciated e.g. was it a nursing home or whatever?
The other connection is that I had the privilege of working in the area in 1981 /1982 as an insurance collector with United Friendly Insurance – or as I was called, “the Wee Society Man”.
Funny to think how fast 40 years have passed since those days!
Back then very few people had bank accounts and for over 100 years – maybe more – people paid their insurance to a collector who called weekly, fortnightly or 4 weekly. He mainly handled their life and house insurance, sometimes pensions, car and fire and accident policies.
As a kid I remember the man from the Pru (I was that man too), The Pearl, Co-op, Royal Liver, Salvation Army, Royal London to name a few, who were regulars around the streets where I grew up.
Each had their own wee quirks: Mr Burt from the Pearl used to leave two “Oddfellow” sweets for my brother and I – I hated those sweets, he loved them!
Right up to the mid-eighties the Society man was a respected member of the community who was trusted with all manner of secrets.
With the advent of direct sales and “financial consultants” plus the wanton destruction of the life insurance and pensions industry in the mid-Eighties by the Government (a familiar tale) the “Home Service” Insurance man disappeared forever almost overnight.
Insurance was rarely a career choice for many people. I’d already worked as a trainee accountant with the SSEB and as a van salesman with a major car dealer in Newton Mearns. Being an ambitious sort I managed to join the Prudential as their youngest ever agent at the ripe old age of 19!
My first few days were a culture shock. I sat in a room and wondered what language they were speaking. If you can get buyer’s remorse when starting a new job I had it by the bucket load. However, I soon learned the jargon and the three and a half years I spent with them was invaluable training and experience.
In early 1981 I was made redundant from the motor trade and in need of employment that was secure – so back to insurance! A job for life - at the time.
My first day with the United Friendly started fine. I knew what to expect going from house to house; I knew the products – what could possibly go wrong??
Day 1 – Paisley Road West / Rhynie Drive, first call
• Client “Are you going to do the Wine Alley son”?
• Me: “Sorry where? ”
• Inspector: “yes he is, on Monday”.
• Client – “You watch yerse’l in that Wine Alley son”.
• Me (thinks) What !!!! I never got told THAT at the interview. Actually this is the printable version - I lapsed into broad Castlemilk anglo saxon!!
When you get asked this question in virtually every house for the rest of the night, you do get worried.
A one sided discussion followed with the inspector who assured me I’d be fine.
He then tells me the previous agent Jack Keith ad retired. Seems he’d been mugged and his fish supper was stolen by someone thinking it was cash! Oh well, that’s OK then – not! I’m a fit 26 year old (benefits of running up and down stair for a living) so no worries eh.
Saturday was the same flurry of warnings. Come Monday I was a bag of nerves! Lo and behold, it was fine. The Inspector introduced me "in a certain way" to "certain people" and everyone was just so nice – not what I’d been led to expect. Great people for sure.
As a job it was the best in the world – apart from maybe being an airline or fighter pilot. As a career, well the government killed that aspect! I did spend a long time in the industry building and running sales teams and so on after that.
If you’re reading this far you might think – what a BORING job.
Far from it, as the society man people trusted you and became friends, even to this day!
We were insurance guys who knew our customers and family personally, social workers, neighbourhood watches, handymen, shoulders to cry on – there’s no truth we provided alibi’s…allegedly! We got to hear more confessions than any priest! We’d put batteries in toys – and tell people to buy batteries BEFORE giving a present. We’d pass on messages between family and neighbours or even “deliver a wee message” as it was called to Mrs So and So to help her out.
We always made extra time for some folks – sometimes we were the only visitor some people got from one week to the next. They’d have a wee china cup and saucer waiting, tea on, house spick and span. They’d talk proudly of their family – who never visited or called. It was great to hear their stories: working in service, growing up on a farm in Ireland, what they did in life.
It was always sad when someone passed away – especially when the family who never called were there on the dot to see how much money they’d be getting from the policies! There was always an “admin issue” with those claims – the families who were always around for the old folks - I went out of my way to get those settled very quickly!
I was never ever going to be without a car radio! I could place my order if I wanted, ahead of the ram raid on Curry’s LOL!
Some clients were right characters: the folks in Carmichael Street who always had a laugh trying to embarrass me. The family with a young daughter who made me a cuppa while I was sorting out their policies. You never drink to the bottom of a cup, but here was this green speckled BLOB poking out.
Have you ever tried to diplomatically leave your tea when everyone is watching you? "Yes of course I’d love a fresh cup" – and there it was again. Turned out there was a frog moulded to the bottom of the cup – well done Tam Sheppard! Laughs all round – big red face for me!
One house, the elderly wifey was having trouble with her pulley (remember those) in the kitchen. No worries, get a chair, jump up and put the rope back on the wheels.
“There you go Missus…you can get your clothes off now” Quick as a flash she says
“Och son -I was just going to make you a wee cup of tea”! Big laughs.
The people were also very observant! I once brought a couple of my younger female clients (who I’d met in town by coincidence, honest) back to the Alley. Seeing it was late, a cup of tea was gratefully accepted. BAD MOVE! EVERYBODY and their dog saw the car, everybody! Every house I went to from Friday on – “What were you doing in the Alley at that time (nudge wink), it’s not your day!” All innocent, but man, it took some convincing!
I could write a book on this, seems like I’ve started. Thing is my customers always told other canvassers they had their insurance with Charlie – not the UF!
In later years working in other areas of the financial services industry I’d notice the wife staring at me (always worrying) “Do I know you?” That’s always a worry eh lads.
It often turned out that they were just young kids when I called on their parents, yet here they were all grown up, families of their own etc. and they remembered me from 20 – 25 years ago! They’d tell me on my next visit that their folks were asking after me etc – nice to be well remembered.
There are other stories of course, some I can tell, others…well….let's say that believe it or not ladies, we are not blind - we just pretended to be...OK moving swiftly on…LOL
Some names I still recall, no offence to those I do not,it was forty years ago after all. Some names I do recall: Bill Fisher the darn good joiner and his wife Annie who did the school patrol. The Hunter Family (Rab and Mary), Jimmy (and Elizabeth?) Greenhorn, George and Minnie Wilson. I hope you are all still fine and healthy.
Oh and not forgetting Ann McConnell and her son Thomas from Orton Street who always had a great cup of coffee waiting for me at the end of my Monday run. Where are you now Ann, get in touch, let me know how you’re doing.
To all the people on my run: Paisley Road West, Rhynie Drive, Copland Road, the Alley, Kintra Street, Briton and Brighton Street etc: a VERY BIG THANK YOU! You were all thoroughly nice people.
I had a wonderful time and the experience stood me well in later years as I passed the knowledge on to others.
Would I go back to it today if I could – in a heartbeat!
Well it seems my first episode of the Wee Society Man was well received so I thought I’d try and commit more memories to paper – “for posterity” as they say.
I was doing some family research and it seems ALL my grandparents (and some great grandparents) were born in the Govan area.
My grandfather on my mother’s side was an iron driller – seems he worked in the yards in Govan, and he and my grandmother lived in the accommodation provided by the shipbuilders for the workers there (probably in Linthouse?) when they were first married. Must try and find those buildings - if they still stand.
It’s amazing after 40 odd years I can still recall so much of the run – the start and finish times (6 minutes per call x 80 calls – that’s a long day running up and down stairs). Step aerobics – away ye go. THIS was REAL “step aerobics” - up and down tenement stairs for 8 hours a day! This was all before you had to dress in Lycra and stretchy pants to jump on and off a wee plastic plank to music!
The job itself was not just collecting money – we needed a good knowledge of car, fire and accident and house insurance – and people! Premiums started from 10 pence a WEEK yet back then some people struggled to find fifty pence a month for a new policy.
The measure of a good agent, apart from knowing their stuff and being regular every week or whatever – was how they handled claims, whether it was life (death claims) or house insurance. For a time there was a wee spate of coffee table “accidents”. A nice new coffee table frame would appear – along with an “estimate” for a “smoked glass, circular, bevelled edge” replacement top – seems “the grandkids broke it with their toys”! Hmmmmm – right you are then. Grandkids had a lot to answer for back then LOL.
Anyway, no worries, claim form out, all filled in over a cuppa – and the settlement made as soon as possible. Only it seemed that a LOT of grandkids were breaking tables for some reason. I even spoke with the local glazier to see if I could get some discount as the office was starting to look at the claims in a funny way.
Turns out these table frames were on sale in the Barras – so for a few pounds and a wee claim, folks had a brand new coffee table for a fraction of the price new. Govan ingenuity – you got to love it.
Not saying how many claims I got through, but the wee “bungs” for getting it through were well received………
Total loss claims and chip pan fires were a huge task: tip: always include EVERYTHING in the house, from tea spoons to the flat screen TV when buying house insurance!!
Burglaries were fine because the police always (allegedly) told people to “UP” their claim. At least the claim list was waiting for you all neat and tidy with valuations etc.
Looking back it was like Still Game, Chewing the Fat and Rab C Nesbitt all rolled into one – every day was a laugh – but there were tragedies too!
Two stick in my mind to this day:
My very first day in the industry, Christmas Eve – we called on a house in Edinburgh Road only to be told their 19 year old (and only) son had just been knocked down and killed leaving work! What can you say to that?
Or the husband who lost his wife in a road accident. She walked in front of a No.34. Only thing was I had pitched the couple a few days earlier as they’d just had a new baby but HE was adamant that his wife didn’t need insurance, he “had it all sorted”. After the accident he turned up at the office with the quotation I’d left and tried to claim on it. It was a lot, around £10,000 lump sum PLUS monthly income for 20 years. I got a lot of stick for that even though it was not my fault, but I never ever issued another quote after that.
Some might say I should have pushed or talked them into it – that’s unethical, and they’ll cancel it as soon as the second premium is due.
In another insurance area in my early days I had a young teenage fan club – which was quite flattering as I was just 20 years old.
Seems the young girl in the house thought I had a striking resemblance to a guy called Les Gray, the lead singer from the group MUD. As I’d walk down the street I’d hear these wee teenie screams from her and her pals at the window and shouts of “HERE’S MUD COMING”. Embarrassing a bit, yes - but flattering. I wonder what she’d think now, knowing I still remember this – eh Pearl LOL, will you ever live that down?
I was also likened to Kenny Dalgleish a few times – God knows why, I can’t kick a ball to save myself.
Turning up regularly at about the same time was always my stock in trade – people had to get out, go to work, cash their giro etc. - they hated waiting in. I got a LOT of business because some other agents turned up when they felt like it.
SO, one Saturday morning I arrive in Orkney Street, 15 minutes earlier than usual. I chap the door in my usual way (people used to call it a “Polis knock”).
Suddenly all hell breaks loose, like wardrobes are falling over, doors being banged…WOW – “beware the power of the knock” eh..
A few minutes later a sheepish wee wifey opens the door (no names), then brightens up “Och Charlie, it’s just yersl’! I thought it was the polis coming to lift my boys, they had a wee disagreement wi’ somebody last night!!” Such is Govan humour.
Christmas was always fun. I loved seeing the trees going up and all the planning. From my earlier experience I knew that getting paid over the “Festives” was a problem – especially as my income was directly related to the collections. At that time of year, insurance guys struggled while the Provi and “Cally cheque” made a fortune doling out loans at extortionate rates for people to “get their presents and bevvy in”!
In some houses the bedroom would be stacked with beers and spirits, all on the Provi – which meant of course wee Charlie was on to plums and his wages would be down for a week or three (much to the annoyance of the then Mrs Charlie) if not longer. Provi collectors tended to be very aggressive, they’d march in and demand money!! So, I just collected a few extra pence per week from October and everyone was a well in advance – and I only had nominal calls to make for three weeks. What a JOB – almost three weeks off at Christmas and New Year BRILLIANT!!
I am allergic to cats big time. One call in the Alley was two old ladies, they were ever so nice BUT, their cats were NEVER out. The décor was from when the house was first built I reckon. It was only a four weekly call but I used to come out sneezing my head off, and when I took their books back home to update them my missus of the time went mental and put them in a poly bag because they were so dirty. If there was a downside of the job – that was one of them.
This just in: “WFH” is NOT a new thing – Society / Insurance men were working from home for years and years!
Anyway – I decided to splash a quid (that was a LOT back then) and pay their premiums way in front…no need to call, sorted! All went well till pay in day a few weeks later, and the manager called me in to ask why I hadn’t been calling on them. I explained about the cats etc. – and he showed me this beautiful, hand written, copperplate writing letter from them complaining I never called. The letter was like a work of art, like you see in old legal documents that had to be written by hand. Oh well, no problem – I put them on tow monthly call and that sorted it. Still, it was a quid or two well spent to keep away from the cats.
When I left the agency I made a note in the collecting book about the cats (amongst other things). The new guy tells me he walked in and did an about turn and headed into the back court feeling - and being - decidedly sick…That’s newbies and their weak stomachs for you! LOL
The contrasts in the area were amazing: some houses you could eat your dinner off the floor, others you had to wipe your feet on the way out. As agents we never judged people – some folks just couldn’t cope with life and there was a LOT of poverty around. In saying that, soap and water were not expensive – and picking up where the cat or dog – or baby - had pooped in the house was always going to be free!
Some people had pigeon dookits in their living room or bathrooms, some people DID keep coal in the bath – honest, it’s not an urban myth!
I worked a Dalmarnock agency for a spell. When the houses were renovated a few people ripped out the new boilers and fittings and sold them. Or put a hole in the wall because “the wall always had a hole there” – yeah, fine – I see your logic – not!
There was a bed factory there – and the horse hair played hell with my allergy! One summer day I had to go canvassing with the Manager while I was collecting. Collecting premiums takes time enough without a Manager tagging along trying to get new business.
Anyway – the Company had a “knock next door” sales campaign: if I was in one house and not the neighbouring one then I should knock their neighbour and tout for business.
The Manager was an overt snob, all “hoity toity” and very religious. So, we’re in the tenements and we had a call top left and top right – as we come out he says to me “remember, knock next door” – and pounded on the middle door.
“WHIT YE WAAANTIN’” – comes a very irate gruff male voice.
“INSURANCE” he says…
There was a lot of cursing and swearing and a few words that were new to me – if that’s possible, but the general message was “GET YERSEL TAE ……@$ afore ah make ye!”.
Seems our Manager had never seen or even heard of the OUTSIDE TOILETS that were still common in Glasgow tenements in the seventies! Still, it worked out well for me because he suddenly remembered he “had to get back to the office for something”. Result!
As an agent you had to go out with an inspector to get new business – fine, I made a good living from them and I learned a tremendous amount. So, one day we’re both walking along Edinburgh Road, it’s near Christmas. The Manager pulls up alongside in his wee VW:
Inspector to me: “It’s the manager! Whatever you do, say NO to music when you get in”
Me: What, why???
Inspector: “Just say NO”!
We get in and he says “would you like to hear some music Mr K”? Everyone was called “MISTER”, no first names.
“Erm, yes, fine by me”. I’m thinking Christmas tunes, I love them!
SO, on comes this heavy organ music – I’m thinking, OK, great, it’s Deep Purple or such like, maybe he’s not such a snobby old f@rt after all. NOPE, it was 20 Favourite Family Hymns - or dirges as they should have been called. The next 15 minutes were an eternity! Amazing how quick depression can set in just by listening to music.
I was always at loggerheads with him, what with me being young and ambitious. Seems he got fired for punching someone out in Head Office – oh dear, I laughed out loud when I found that out. Mr Goody two shoes was not so goody after all!
One other Life Inspector (as they were called) was almost totally deaf. He wore two hearing aids. When he pitched a client and ask them to buy he’d switch his hearing aids off and just sit there with a big smile, holding out the proposal form and his pen until they signed. What a BRILLIANT sales technique LOL.
Well that’s it for now – hope you enjoy the wee stories as much as I enjoy the memories: the laughs, the people I met – what a fantastic time it was.
As I said earlier, I’d go back to it in a heartbeat if I could.
A few more things come to mind, maybe later.
Thanks for reading.